Noctilucent clouds hang over a lake at sunset.Photo: Wikimedia
This week, Democrats on the House Select Committee for the Climate Crisis put out their big ol’ climate plan. There’s plenty in the report to show Democrats’ priorities on climate should they retake the White House and Senate this fall, including how they would approach a controversial topic.
Hidden in the depths of the 500-plus page report is a mention of how Democrats would approach geoengineering the planet to cool things down. It’s a sign that an idea that was once taboo is becoming more mainstream as the world continues on a dangerous course of polluting the atmosphere.
Geoengineering is a blanket term for both efforts to block out the sun as well as suck carbon out of the air. Democrats plan includes both, but it’s the blocking the sun part that’s particularly notable given the risks.
Using tiny particles to reflect sun back into space could indeed cool the Earth, but doing so comes with all sorts of issues ranging from shifting weather patterns to locking us into continuing to block the sun for decades on end once we start.
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Despite the risks, it’s also something that may end up happening if climate change goes from catastrophic to apocalyptic or if a rogue nation or billionaire decides its in their best interests. The prospect of that happening is why getting a handle on the impacts is so high stakes. Even though it’s a little terrifying to see it in Democrats’ climate plan, it’s also necessary.
The first mention of geoengineering—or as the plan calls it, “climate intervention”—comes on page 15 with very little context, noting solely that a pillar of research should include looking at “governance approaches for the risks of atmospheric climate intervention.” Deep in the report, on page 536, the committee document what that means:
“If global efforts to mitigate carbon emissions falter, and as the impacts of climate change continue to worsen, governments may consider alternative approaches to intervene in the atmospheric climate system.”
The report goes on to note the risks of blocking the sun. The plan would have Congress take into account a forthcoming National Academy of Sciences report on blocking the sun and start a geoengineering research program. This isn’t the first time Congress has talked about geoengineering (more on that in a second), but it’s fundamentally a huge step.
“It’s incredibly significant,” Shuchi Talati, a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists who studies geoengineering governance, told Earther. “You look back even pretty recently at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2008, John Holdren, who was Obama’s science adviser, got really negative press for even just mentioning the words. The fact that we’re talking about creating a research program and research governance in a serious way as an actual priority signals a pretty big shift.”
This is the latest in a flurry of geoengineering interest. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang was blasé about it to a fault. Congress gave government geoengineering research some seed money earlier this year. And the House has previously weighed blocking the sun—known in the field as solar radiation management—under Republicans. Back when they controlled the House, Republicans called a rare climate hearing not to disingenuously cast doubt on science but to discuss geoengineering. Rather than treating it as a method of last resort, though, it became clear they saw it as a silver bullet.
That’s one of the inherent dangers of geoengineering, particularly if the world’s carbon emissions continue to mount. Talati said pursuing efforts to study geoengineering under “this administration or any administration that doesn’t prioritize or act on [greenhouse gas emissions] mitigation” would set a horrible precedent and endanger efforts to cut emissions.
But for an administration that’s acting to cut emissions, using the weight of the U.S. government to responsibly research the impacts of geoengineering and possible implementation would be a huge asset. The world needs to know what the consequences would be even if we don’t want to block the sun. There could always be unplanned circumstances whether its the risk of a rogue actor spraying the sky with reflective particles or the fact that the planet could cross a danger climate tipping point forcing leaders’ hand to try to block the sun, and it’s better to know the risks of solar radiation management rather than flying blind. Democrats’ plan is a first step to start to gauge the consequences and how a geoengineering program could work even if it’s knowledge we hopefully never have to use.
Talati said, though, that she would be wary of any geoengineering implementation program led by the U.S. It and other developed countries are the very ones that created the climate crisis in the first place at the expense of developing countries. Recreating that dynamic for geoengineering is a surefire way to continue screwing poor countries by forcing them to live the consequences of a potentially disastrous decision they didn’t get a say in making. Democrats’ climate plan is somewhat isolationist by focusing largely on domestic policy, but that will have to change going forward since climate change is a global issue, particularly when it comes to anything around geoengineering.
“[It’s] an imperfect solution to a problem that we created, and that’s going to be viewed as extremely illegitimate,” Talati said. “For solar geoengineering governance and research to be viewed as a legitimate path forward, it has to be led by these climate vulnerable nations because they’re the ones who are going to be dealing with these problems. They should even have a larger seat at the table to make these decisions about how we should go forward.”